Order Code 95-804 A
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Obscenity and Indecency:
and Federal Statutes
Updated June 29, 2004
American Law Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Obscenity and Indecency: Constitutional Principles and
The First Amendment provides: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the
freedom of speech, or of the press.” In general, the First Amendment protects
pornography, with this term being used to mean any erotic material. The Supreme
Court, however, has held that the First Amendment does not protect two types of
pornography: obscenity and child pornography. Consequently, they may be banned
on the basis of their content, and federal law prohibits the mailing of obscenity, as
well as its transport or receipt in interstate or foreign commerce.
Most pornography is not legally obscene; to be obscene, pornography must, at
a minimum, “depict or describe patently offensive ‘hard core’ sexual conduct.” The
Supreme Court has created a three-part test, known as the Miller test, to determine
whether a work is obscene. Pornography that is not obscene may not be banned, but
may be regulated as to the time, place, and manner of its distribution, particularly in
order to keep it from children. Thus, the courts have upheld the zoning and licensing
of pornography dealers, as well as restrictions on dial-a-porn, nude dancing, and
indecent radio and television broadcasting.
Federal statutes, in addition to making it a crime to mail obscenity or to
transport or receive it in interstate or foreign commerce, provide for criminal and
civil forfeiture of real and personal property used in making obscenity pornography,
and of the profits of obscenity — in some instances even when they were already
used to pay a third party. In addition, obscenity crimes are included among the
predicate offenses that may give rise to a violation of the Federal Racketeer
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
The Internet has given rise to three federal statutes designed to protect minors
from sexual material posted on it. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 makes
it a crime knowingly to use a telecommunications device (telephone, fax, or e-mail)
to make an obscene or indecent communication to a minor, or knowingly to use an
interactive computer service to transmit an obscene communication to anyone or an
indecent communication to a minor. The Supreme Court, however, held the
inclusion of “indecent” communications in this statute unconstitutional. Congress,
in response, enacted the less-broad Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the
enforcement of which has been enjoined while its constitutionality is being
challenged. Finally, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), enacted at the end
of the 106th Congress, requires schools and libraries that accept federal funds to
purchase computers or Internet access to block or filter obscenity, child pornography,
and, with respect to minors, material that is “harmful to minors.” Filters may be
disabled, however, “for bona fide research or other lawful purpose.” On June 23,
2003, the Supreme Court held CIPA constitutional.
I. Constitutional Principles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
A. The Miller Test . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
B. Zoning and Licensing of Pornography Dealers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
C. Nude Dancing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
II. Federal Obscenity and Indecency Statutes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
A. Postal Service Provisions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
B. Dial-a-Porn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
C. Obscenity Provisions at 18 U.S.C. §§ 1460-1470 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Section 1460 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Section 1461 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Section 1462 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Section 1463 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Section 1464 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Section 1465 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Section 1466 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Section 1466A . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Section 1467 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Section 1468 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Section 1469 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Section 1470 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
D. Cable Television . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
E. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
47 U.S.C. § 223(a) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
47 U.S.C. § 223(d) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
F. Child Online Protection Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
G. Children’s Internet Protection Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
H. Dot Kids Internet Domain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
I. Misleading Domain Names on the Internet . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
J. Sexually Oriented Spam . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
K. RICO . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
L. Wiretaps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
M. The Customs Service Provision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40
Obscenity and Indecency: Constitutional
Principles and Federal Statutes
I. Constitutional Principles
To be constitutional, a federal statute must be enacted pursuant to a power of
Congress enumerated in the Constitution and must not contravene any provision of
the Constitution. Two powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution
give Congress the power to enact statutes regulating or banning pornography: the
power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,”
and the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” Thus, Congress may
enact statutes, provided they do not contravene any provision of the Constitution, that
regulate pornography that crosses state or national boundaries, is imported or
exported, or is mailed.
The provision of the Constitution that federal statutes regulating pornography
are most likely to be in danger of contravening is the First Amendment’s provision
that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the
press.”1 Although pornography in general is protected by the First Amendment, two
types of pornography — obscenity and child pornography — are not.2 Therefore,
pornography that does not constitute obscenity or child pornography may ordinarily
be regulated only with respect to its time, place, and manner of distribution.3 An
outright ban on pornography other than obscenity or child pornography would violate
the First Amendment unless it served “to promote a compelling interest” and was
“the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest.”4 Obscenity and child
Despite its mentioning only “Congress,” the First Amendment applies equally to all
branches of the federal government and the states. Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153, 168 n.16
Child pornography is material that visually depicts sexual conduct by children. New York
v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 764 (1982). It is unprotected by the First Amendment even when
it is not legally obscene; i.e., child pornography need not meet the Miller test to be banned.
For additional information, see CRS Report 95-406, Child Pornography: Constitutional
Principles and Federal Statutes.
In Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 481 (1988), the Supreme Court noted: “The State may
. . . enforce regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are contentneutral [i.e., “are justified without reference to the content of the speech,” Renton v.
Playtime Theaters, Inc., 475 U.S. 41, 48 (1986) (emphasis in original)], are narrowly
tailored to serve a significant [not necessarily a compelling] government interest, and leave
open ample alternative channels of communication [but need not necessarily be the least
restrictive means to further the government interest].”
Sable Communications of California v. Federal Communications Commission, 492 U.S.
pornography, however, being without First Amendment protection, may be totally
banned on the basis of their content, not only in the absence of a compelling
governmental interest, but in the absence of any evidence of harm.
Obscenity apparently is unique in being the only type of speech to which the
Supreme Court has denied First Amendment protection without regard to whether it
can cause harm. According to the Court, there is evidence that, at the time of the
adoption of the First Amendment, obscenity “was outside the protection intended for
speech and press.”5 Consequently, obscenity may be banned simply because a
legislature concludes that banning it protects “the social interest in order and
A. The Miller Test
Most pornography is not legally obscene (i.e., most pornography is protected by
the First Amendment). To be obscene, pornography must, at a minimum, “depict or
describe patently offensive ‘hard core’ sexual conduct.”7 The Supreme Court has
created a three-part test, known as the Miller test, to determine whether a work is
obscene. The Miller test asks:
(a) whether the “average person applying contemporary community standards”
would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b)
whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual
conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the
work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific
115, 126 (1989).
Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 483 (1957). However, Justice Douglas, dissenting,
wrote: “[T]here is no special historical evidence that literature dealing with sex was
intended to be treated in a special manner by those who drafted the First Amendment.” Id.
Id. at 485.
Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 27 (1973).
Id. at 24 (citation omitted). In Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc., 472 U.S. 491, 498
(1984), the Court struck down a state statute to the extent that it defined “prurient” as “that
which incites lasciviousness or lust.” The Court held that a publication was not obscene if
it “provoked only normal, healthy sexual desires.” To be obscene it must appeal to “a
shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion.” In Manual Enterprises v. Day, 370
U.S. 478, 480 (1962), the Court indicated that photographs of nude male models, although
they appealed to the prurient interest and lacked literary, scientific, or other merit, were not
patently offensive merely because they were aimed at homosexuals. In Jenkins v. Georgia,
418 U.S. 153, 160 (1974), the Court held that the film “Carnal Knowledge” was not
obscene, writing: “Even though questions of appeal to the ‘prurient interest’ or of patent
offensiveness are ‘essentially questions of fact,’ it would be a serious misreading of Miller
to conclude that juries have unbridled discretion in determining what is ‘patently
offensive.’” In Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964), Justice Stewart, concurring,
In Pope v. Illinois, the Supreme Court clarified that “the first and second prongs
of the Miller test — appeal to prurient interest and patent offensiveness — are issues
of fact for the jury to determine applying contemporary community standards.”9
However, as for the third prong, “[t]he proper inquiry is not whether an ordinary
member of any given community would find serious literary, artistic, political, or
scientific value in allegedly obscene material, but whether a reasonable person would
find such value in the material, taken as a whole.”10
When a federal statute refers to “obscenity,” it should be understood to refer
only to pornography that is obscene under the Miller standard, as application of the
statute to other material would ordinarily be unconstitutional. However, narrowly
drawn statutes that serve a compelling interest, such as protecting minors, may be
permissible even if they restrict pornography that is not obscene under Miller.11 In
Sable Communications of California, Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission,
the Supreme Court
noted that “criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography,
which he would not attempt to define. Then followed his famous remark: “But I know it
when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” The motion picture
was a French film called “Les Amants” (“The Lovers”).
481 U.S. 497, 500 (1987). In Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 105 (1974), the Court
noted that a “community” was not any “precise geographic area,” and suggested that it might
be less than an entire state. In Jenkins v. Georgia, supra note 8, 418 U.S., at 157 (1974), the
Court approved a “trial court’s instructions directing jurors to apply ‘community standards’
without specifying what ‘community.’”
Justice Scalia concurred in the result in Pope v. Illinois, but wrote: “[I]n my view it is
quite impossible to come to an objective assessment of (at least) literary or artistic value,
there being many accomplished people who have found literature in Dada, and art in the
replication of a soup can. Since ratiocination has little to do with esthetics, the fabled
‘reasonable man’ is of little help in the inquiry, and would have to be replaced with,
perhaps, the ‘man of tolerably good taste’ — a description that betrays the lack of an
ascertainable standard. . . . I think we would be better advised to adopt as a legal maxim
what has long been the wisdom of mankind: De gustibus non est disputandum. Just as there
is no arguing about taste, there is no use litigating about it.” Id. at 504-505.
In Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 749-750
(1978), the Supreme Court, upholding the power of the Federal Communications
Commission to regulate a radio broadcast that was “indecent” but not obscene, wrote:
We held in Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, that the government’s interest
in the “well-being of its youth” and in supporting “parents’ claim to authority in
their own household” justified the regulation of otherwise protected expression.
Id., at 640 and 639. The ease with which children may obtain access to broadcast
material, coupled with the concerns recognized in Ginsberg, amply justify
special treatment of indecent broadcasting.
In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 878 (1997), the Supreme Court
suggested that the strength of the government’s interest in protecting minors may vary
depending upon the age of the minor, the parental control, and the artistic or educational
value of the material in question.
recognized that there is a compelling interest in protecting the physical and
psychological well-being of minors. This interest extends to shielding minors
from the influence of literature that is not obscene by adult standards. The
government may serve this legitimate interest, but to withstand constitutional
scrutiny, “it must do so by narrowly drawn regulations without unnecessarily
interfering with First Amendment freedoms.” It is not enough to show that the
government’s ends are compelling; the means must be carefully tailored to
achieved those ends.12
In Sable, the Supreme Court applied these principles to the government’s
attempt to proscribe dial-a-porn; see, page 10, below.
The Supreme Court has allowed one exception to the rule that obscenity, as
defined by Miller, is not protected under the First Amendment. In Stanley v.
Georgia, the Court held that “mere private possession of obscene material” is
protected. The Court wrote:
Whatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do
not think they reach into the privacy of one’s own home. If the First Amendment
means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone
in his house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.13
Subsequently, however, the Supreme Court rejected the claim that under Stanley
there is a constitutional right to provide obscene material for private use,14 or to
acquire it for private use.15 The right to possess obscene material does not imply the
right to provide or acquire it, because the right to possess it “reflects no more than . . .
the law’s ‘solicitude to protect the privacies of the life within [the home].’”16
B. Zoning and Licensing of Pornography Dealers
In Young v. American Mini Theaters, Inc., the Supreme Court held that “[t]he
mere fact that the commercial exploitation of material protected by the First
Amendment is subject to zoning and other licensing requirements is not a sufficient
492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989) (citations omitted). It might appear that regulations could be
“narrowly drawn” or “carefully tailored” without being the “least restrictive means” to
further a governmental interest. But Sable, on the same page, also uses the latter phrase
(quoted above in the text accompanying note 4), and the Court has elsewhere made clear that
the “narrow tailoring” required for content-based restrictions is more stringent than that
required for time, place, and manner restrictions (see, note 3, supra), where “leastrestrictive-alternative analysis is wholly out of place.” Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491
U.S. 781, 798-799 n.6 (1989).
394 U.S. 557, 565, 568 (1969). The Court has held that there is no right even to private
possession of child pornography. Osborne v. Ohio, 495 U.S. 103 (1990).
United States v. Reidel, 402 U.S. 351 (1971).
United States v. 12 200-Ft. Reels of Film, 413 U.S. 123 (1973).
Id. at 127. See, Edwards, Obscenity in the Age of Direct Broadcast Satellite: A Final
Burial for Stanley v. Georgia(?), a National Obscenity Standard, and Other Miscellany, 33
William and Mary Law Review 949 (1992).
reason for invalidating these ordinances.”17 In Young, the Court upheld ordinances
that required dispersal of “adult” establishments; specifically, the ordinances
provided that an adult theater could not be located within 1,000 feet of any two other
“regulated uses” (adult bookstores, cabarets, bars, hotels, etc.) or within 500 feet of
a residential area. In Renton v. Playtime Theaters, Inc., the Court upheld an
ordinance that required that adult theaters be concentrated in limited areas; it prohibited adult “theaters from locating within 1,000 feet of any residential zone, singleor multiple-family dwelling, church, park, or school.”18
In Young, the Court reasoned that
what is ultimately at stake is nothing more than a limitation on the place where
adult films may be exhibited, even though the determination of whether a
particular film fits that characterization turns on the nature of its content. . . .
The situation would be quite different if the ordinance had the effect of
suppressing, or greatly restricting access to, lawful speech.19
In Renton, the Court wrote:
The ordinance by its terms is designed to prevent crime, protect the city’s retail
trade, maintain property values, and generally “protec[t] and preserv[e] the
quality of [the city’s] neighborhoods, commercial districts, and the quality of
urban life,” not to suppress the expression of unpopular views. . . . In short, the
Renton ordinance is completely consistent with our definition of “contentneutral” speech regulations as those that “are justified without reference to the
content of the regulated speech.”20
In both Young and Renton, the Court found the ordinances in question to be
narrow enough to affect only those theaters shown to produce the unwanted
secondary effects, such as crime.21 In this respect they were unlike the regulations
the Court struck down as overbroad in two other cases. In Erznoznik v. City of
Jacksonville, the ordinance prohibited drive-in theaters from showing films
containing nudity when the screen was visible from a public street.22 In Schad v.
Mount Ephraim, the ordinance prohibited live entertainment from a broad range of
commercial uses permitted in a commercial zone; the ordinance in this case was used
to prosecute an adult bookstore that featured coin-operated booths that permitted
customers to watch nude dancing.23
In Freedman v. Maryland, the Court struck down a statute that required the
owner or lessee of a fil, prior to exhibiting a film, to submit the film to the Maryland
427 U.S. 50, 62 (1976).
475 U.S. 41, 43 (1986).
Young, supra note 17, at 71-72 n.35.
Renton, supra note 18, at 48 (emphasis in original).
427 U.S. at 71; 475 U.S. at 52.
422 U.S. 205 (1975).
452 U.S. 61 (1981).
State Board of Censors and obtain its approval.24 The Court held that, for such a
statute to be constitutional, “the burden of proving that the film is unprotected
expression must rest on the censor,” and the censor must, “within a specified brief
period, either issue a license or go to court to restrain showing the film. Any restraint
imposed in advance of a final judicial determination on the merits must similarly be
limited to preservation of the status quo for the shortest fixed period compatible with
sound judicial resolution. . . . [T]he procedure must also assure a prompt final
judicial decision.”25 The Court cited a “model” for a constitutional procedure: “In
Kingsley Books, Inc. v. Brown, 354 U.S. 436, we upheld a New York injunctive
procedure designed to prevent the sale of obscene books. . . . The statute provides
for a hearing one day after joinder of issue; the judge must hand down his decision
within two days after termination of the hearing.”26
In FW/PBS, Inc. v. Dallas, the Supreme Court considered a challenge to a city
ordinance that regulated “sexually oriented businesses through a scheme
incorporating zoning, licensing, and inspections,” and prohibited “individuals
convicted of certain crimes from obtaining a license to operate a sexually oriented
business for a specified period of years.”27 The ordinance defined a “sexually
oriented business” as “an adult arcade, adult bookstore or adult video store, adult
cabaret, adult motel, adult motion picture theater, escort agency, nude model studio,
or sexual encounter center.”28 The Court held that the licensing scheme
does not provide for an effective limitation on the time within which the
licensor’s decision must be made. It also fails to provide an avenue for prompt
judicial review so as to minimize suppression of the speech in the event of a
license denial. We therefore hold that the failure to provide these essential
safeguards renders the ordinance’s licensing requirement unconstitutional insofar
as it is enforced against those businesses engaged in First Amendment activity.29
380 U.S. 51 (1965).
Id. at 58-59.
Id. at 60.
493 U.S. 215, 220-221 (1990).
Id. at 220.
Id. at 229. A type of business that the ordinance covered that did not engage in First
Amendment activity was adult motels, which the ordinance defined as motels that rented
rooms for less than 10 hours. Inclusion of these motels was challenged on two grounds: (1)
that the city had “violated the Due Process Clause by failing to produce adequate support
for its supposition that renting rooms for less than 10 hours results in increased crime or
other secondary effects,” and (2) “that the 10-hour limitation on the rental of motel rooms
places an unconstitutional burden on the right to freedom of association . . . .” Id. at 236237. The Court rejected both arguments. As for the first, it found “it reasonable to believe
that shorter rental time periods indicate that the motels foster prostitution.” Id. at 236. As
for the second, it found that the associations “that are formed from the use of a motel room
for less than 10 hours are not those that have ‘played a critical role in the culture and
traditions of the Nation by cultivating and transmitting shared ideals and beliefs.’” Id. at
On June 7, 2004, in City of Littleton v. Z.J. Gifts D-4, L.L.C., the Court upheld
a city’s “adult business” licensing ordinance. The Court first rejected the city’s
argument that, because the Court, in FW/PBS, Inc. v. Dallas, had used the phrase
“prompt judicial review,” rather than “prompt final judicial decision,” which it had
used in Freedman, “[t]he First Amendment, as applied to an ‘adult business’
licensing scheme, demands only an assurance of speedy access to the courts, not an
assurance of a speedy court decision.” The Court noted, “A delay in issuing a
judicial decision, no less than a delay in obtaining access to a court, can prevent a
licence from being ‘issued within a reasonable period of time.’” The Court held,
however, that the city’s ordinance satisfied the First Amendment’s requirement of a
prompt judicial decision.
The Court noted that, in a case such as Freedman, involving “a scheme with
rather subjective standards and where a denial likely meant complete censorship,”
there was a need “for special procedural rules imposing special two- or three-day
decisionmaking time limits.” Littleton, however, involved a scheme that “applies
reasonably objective, nondiscretionary criteria unrelated to the content of the
expressive materials,” but related instead to matters such as whether the applicant
had had an adult business license revoked or suspended and had timely paid taxes,
fees, fines, or penalties. “Where (as here and as in FW/PBS) the regulation simply
conditions the operation of an adult business on compliance with neutral and
nondiscretionary criteria . . . and does not seek to censor content, an adult business
is not entitled to an unusually speedy judicial decision of the Freedman type. . . . Of
course, those denied licenses in the future remain free to raise special problems of
undue delay in individual cases as the ordinance is applied.”30
In Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc., the Supreme Court reversed a grant of
summary judgment that had struck down a municipal ordinance that prohibited “the
establishment or maintenance of more than one adult entertainment business in the
same building, structure or portion thereof.”31 A federal district court had granted
summary judgment and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had affirmed on
the ground “that the city failed to present evidence upon which it could reasonably
rely to demonstrate a link between multiple-use adult establishments and negative
secondary effects.”32 The Supreme Court reversed, finding that “[t]he city of Los
Angeles may reasonably rely on a study it conducted some years before enacting the
present version of § 12.70(C) to demonstrate that its ban on multiple-use adult
establishments serves its interest in reducing crime.”33 It therefore remanded the case
so that the city would have the opportunity to demonstrate this at trial.
The four-judge plurality opinion in Alameda Books “held that a municipality
may rely on any evidence that is ‘reasonably believed to be relevant’ for
Similarly, a “content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation of the use of a public
forum” need not “adhere to the procedural requirements set forth in Freedman.” Thomas
v. Chicago Park District, 534 U.S. 316, 322 (2002).
535 U.S. 425, 429 (2002).
Id. at 430.
demonstrating a causal connection between speech and a substantial, independent
governmental interest,” such as reducing crime or maintaining property values.34
Justice Kennedy, whose concurring opinion was necessary for a majority, added that,
not only must the city demonstrate that its ordinance “has the purpose and effect of
suppressing secondary effects”; it must also demonstrate that it will leave “the
quantity and accessibility of speech substantially intact.”35 The four dissenting
justices found that “the city has failed to show any causal relationship between the
breakup policy and elimination or regulation of secondary effects,” and, therefore,
that summary judgment had been properly granted.36
C. Nude Dancing
The Supreme Court has twice upheld the application of laws banning public
nudity to nudity in “adult” entertainment establishments where the viewers are all
consenting adults who have paid to see the dancers. In Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc.,
the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not prevent the government
from requiring that dancers wear “pasties” and a “G-string” when they dance
(nonobscenely) in such establishments.37 Indiana sought to enforce a state statute
prohibiting public nudity against two such establishments, which asserted First
Amendment protection. The Court found that the statute proscribed public
nudity across the board, not nude dancing as such, and therefore imposed only an
incidental restriction on expression. A statute that is intended to suppress speech will
be upheld only if it serves a compelling governmental interest and is the least
restrictive means to further that interest. By contrast, under United States v. O’Brien,
a statute that imposes an incidental restriction, like one that imposes a time, place,
or manner restriction, will be upheld if it is narrowly tailored to further a substantial,
but not necessarily compelling, governmental interest.38
There was no majority opinion in the case. Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justices
O’Connor and Kennedy, found the statute no more restrictive than necessary to
further the governmental interest of “protecting societal order and morality.”39
Justice Souter found the relevant governmental interest to be “combating the
secondary effects of adult entertainment establishments,” such as prostitution, sexual
assaults, and other criminal activity.40 The fifth Justice necessary to uphold the nude
dancing prohibition, Justice Scalia, thought that the case raised no First Amendment
issue at all, because the incidental restriction was on conduct, not speech, and
“virtually every law restricts conduct, and virtually any prohibited conduct can be
Id. at 438.
Id. at 449.
Id. at 460.
501 U.S. 560 (1991).
391 U.S. 367 (1968).
Barnes, supra note 37, at 568.
Id. at 582.
performed for expressive purposes.”41 Four Justices dissented, finding insufficient
“the plurality and Justice Scalia’s simple references to the State’s general interest in
promoting societal order and morality . . . . The purpose of forbidding people to
appear nude in parks, beaches, hot dog stands, and like public places is to protect
others from offense. But that could not possibly be the purpose of preventing nude
dancing in theaters and barrooms since the viewers are exclusively consenting adults
who paid money to see these dances. The purpose of the proscription in these
contexts is to protect the viewers from what the State believes is the harmful message
that nude dancing communicates.”42 This purpose is impermissible under the First
In Erie v. Pap’s A.M., the Supreme Court again upheld the application of a
statute prohibiting public nudity to an “adult” entertainment establishment.43
Although there was again only a plurality opinion, this time by Justice O’Connor,
Parts I and II of that opinion were joined by five justices. These five adopted Justice
Souter’s position in Barnes, that the statute satisfied the O’Brien test because it was
intended “to combat harmful secondary effects,” such as “prostitution and other
criminal activity.”44 Justice Souter, however, though joining the plurality opinion,
also dissented in part in Erie. He continued to believe that secondary effects were
an adequate justification for banning nude dancing, but did not believe “that the city
has made a sufficient evidentiary showing to sustain its regulation,” and therefore
would have remanded the case for further proceedings.45 He acknowledged his
“mistake” in Barnes in failing to make the same demand for evidence.46
The plurality opinion in Erie found that the effect of Erie’s public nudity ban
“on the erotic message . . . is de minimis” because Erie allows dancers to perform
wearing only pasties and G-strings.47 It may follow that “requiring dancers to wear
pasties and G-strings may not greatly reduce . . . secondary effects, but O’Brien
requires only that the regulation further the interest of combating such effects,” not
that it further it to a particular extent.48 Justice Scalia, this time joined by Justice
Thomas, again took the view that, “[w]hen conduct other than speech itself is
Id. at 576 (emphasis in original).
Id. at 590-591 (White, J., dissenting, joined by Justices Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens).
529 U.S. 277 (2000).
Id. at 292, 291.
Id. at 310-311.
Id. at 316.
Id. at 294. The plurality said that, though nude dancing is “expressive conduct” [which
ordinarily means it would be entitled to full First Amendment protection], “we think that it
falls only within the outer ambit of the First Amendment’s protection.” Id. at 289. The
opinion also quotes Justice Stevens to the same effect with regard to erotic materials
generally. Id. at 294. In United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., infra note
101, 529 U.S., at 826, however, the Court wrote that it “cannot be influenced . . . by the
perception that the regulation in question is not a major one because the speech is not very
Id. at 301.
regulated . . . the First Amendment is violated only ‘[w]here the government
prohibits conduct precisely because of its communicative attributes.”49 He found,
therefore, that the statute should be upheld without regard to “secondary effects,” but
simply as an attempt “to foster good morals.”50
Justice Stevens, dissenting in Erie and joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote: “Until
now, the ‘secondary effects’ of commercial enterprises featuring indecent
entertainment have justified only the regulation of their location. For the first time,
the Court has now held that such effects may justify the total suppression of protected
speech. Indeed, the plurality opinion concludes that admittedly trivial advancements
of a State’s interest may provide the basis for censorship.”51 It concludes, that is, that
the O’Brien “test can be satisfied by nothing more than the mere possibility of de
minimis effects on the neighborhood.”52
The plurality in Erie did not address the question of whether statutes prohibiting
public nudity could be applied to ban serious theater that contains nudity. In Barnes,
Justice Souter wrote: “It is difficult to see . . . how the enforcement of Indiana’s
statute against nudity in a production of ‘Hair’ or ‘Equus’ somewhere other than an
‘adult’ theater would further the State’s interest in avoiding harmful secondary
effects . . . .”53
II. Federal Obscenity and Indecency Statutes
A. Postal Service Provisions
Sections 3008 and 3010 of Title 39 allow people to prevent mail that they find
offensive from being sent to them. Section 3008 provides that a person who receives
in the mail “any pandering advertisement which offers for sale matter which the
addressee in his sole discretion believes to be erotically arousing or sexually
provocative” may request the Postal Service to issue an order directing the sender to
refrain from further mailings to the addressee, and the Postal Service must do so. If
the Postal Service believes that a sender has violated such an order, it may request
the Attorney General to apply to a federal court for an order directing compliance.
The language of 39 U.S.C. § 3008 is broad enough to apply to any unwanted
advertisement, regardless of content, as the Supreme Court indicated in upholding
the constitutionality of the statute. “We . . . categorically reject,” the Court said, “the
Id. at 310.
Id. at 317-318.
Id. at 324. Justice Stevens also wrote that the plurality was “mistaken in equating our
secondary effects cases with the ‘incidental burdens’ doctrine applied in cases such as
O’Brien. . . . The incidental burdens doctrine applies when speech and non-speech elements
are combined in the same course of conduct”[internal quotation marks omitted], whereas
secondary effects “are indirect consequences of protected speech.” Id.
Barnes, supra note 37, 501 U.S., at 585 n.2.
argument that a vendor has a right under the Constitution or otherwise to send
unwanted material into the home of another.”54
Section 3010 provides that any person may file with the Postal Service a
statement “that he desires to receive no sexually oriented advertisements through the
mails.” The Postal Service shall make the list available, and “[n]o person shall mail
or cause to be mailed any sexually oriented advertisement to any individual whose
name and address has been on the list for more than 30 days.” Section 3011 provides
that, if the Postal Service believes that any person is violating section 3010, it may
request the Attorney General to commence a civil action against such person in a
federal district court. The court may employ various remedies to prevent future
Violations of sections 3008 and 3010 are also subject to criminal penalties under
18 U.S.C. § 1737.
The federal law concerning dial-a-porn is section 223(b) of the Communications
Act of 1934, as amended, 47 U.S.C. § 223(b). Prior to April 1988, it banned both
obscene and indecent dial-a-porn in interstate commerce and foreign communications, but only if it involved persons under eighteen. Although pornography that is
indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment, restricting minors’
access to pornography, even to non-obscene pornography, generally presents no
constitutional problems, as minors do not have the same rights as adults under the
Therefore, the pre-April 1988 version of section 223(b) apparently was
constitutional. In April 1988, however, P.L. 100-297, § 6101, amended section
223(b) to ban obscene and indecent dial-a-porn in interstate and foreign communications, whether involving adults or children.
In June 1989, the Supreme Court declared section 223(b) unconstitutional
insofar as it applies to indecent messages that are not obscene.55 The Court noted
“that while the Government has a legitimate interest in protecting children from
exposure to indecent dial-a-porn messages, § 223(b) was not sufficiently narrowly
drawn to serve that purpose and thus violated the First Amendment.”56 “[C]redit
card, access code, and scrambling rules . . . [would have] represented a ‘feasible and
effective’ way to serve the Government’s compelling interest in protecting
children.”57 The government argued that these methods “would not be effective
Rowan v. Post Office Department, 397 U.S. 728, 738 (1970).
Sable Communications of California, Inc. v. F.C.C., supra note 4, 492 U.S. 115 (1989).
Id. at 126.
Id. at 128.
enough,” but the Court found “no evidence in the record . . . to that effect . . . .”58
The Court concluded:
Because the statute’s denial of adult access to telephone messages which are
indecent but not obscene far exceeds that which is necessary to limit the access
of minors to such messages, we hold that the ban does not survive constitutional
The upshot of Sable was that Congress’ 1988 extension to adults of the ban on
dial-a-porn that is indecent but not obscene resulted in federal law’s not banning such
dial-a-porn at all, even if used by minors. Section 223(b) after the decision banned
dial-a-porn only if it was obscene.
Therefore, in 1989, Congress enacted P.L. 101-166, known as the “Helms
Amendment,” which amended section 223(b) to ban indecent dial-a-porn, if used by
persons under 18. Under the 1988 law, section 223(b) applied “in the District of
Columbia or in interstate or foreign communications”; under the Helms Amendment,
it applies to all calls “within the United States.”
The Helms Amendment also added section 223(c), which prohibits telephone
companies, “to the extent technically feasible,” from providing access to any dial-aporn “from the telephone of any subscriber who has not previously requested [it] in
writing . . . .” In order to enable telephone companies to comply with this provision,
Federal Communications Commission regulations require dial-a-porn providers to
give written notice to the telephone company that they are providing indecent
communications. 47 C.F.R. § 64.201.60
The Helms Amendment was challenged as unconstitutional, but a federal court
of appeals upheld it, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.61 The court
of appeals found that the word “indecent” as used in the statute was not void for
vagueness,62 that the statute was the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling
Id. at 131.
Section 223(b) provides that a person found guilty of knowingly communicating obscene
dial-a-porn “shall be fined in accordance with title 18 of the United States Code, or
imprisoned not more than two years, or both.” Title 18, § 3571, provides for fines of up to
$250,000 for individuals and up to $500,000 for organizations. A person found guilty of
knowingly communicating indecent dial-a-porn “shall be fined not more than $50,000 or
imprisoned not more than six months, or both.” Section 223(b) also provides for additional
Dial Information Services Corp. v. Thornburgh, 938 F.2d 1535 (2d Cir. 1991), cert.
denied, 502 U.S. 1072 (1992).
The court noted that the word has been “defined clearly” by the Federal Communications
Commission, in the dial-a-porn context, “as the description or depiction of sexual or
excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary
community standards for the telephone medium.” 938 F.2d, at 1540. The court noted that
this definition tracks the one quoted in note 74, infra. Id. at 1541.
governmental interest,63 and that the requirement that the dial-a-porn provider inform
the telephone company that its message was indecent did not constitute prior
C. Obscenity Provisions at 18 U.S.C. §§ 1460-1470
Federal law contains no outright ban on all obscenity; it leaves this to state law.
However, the following federal statutes prohibit, among other things, obscenity on
federal land or in federal buildings, in the mail, on radio and television, in interstate
or foreign commerce, and on interstate highways and railroads even when the
obscene material is transported intrastate.
Section 1460. This section makes it a crime, “in the special maritime and
territorial jurisdiction of the United States or on any land or building owned by,
leased to, or otherwise used by or under the control of the Government of the United
States,” or “in the Indian country as defined in section 1151 of this title,” to sell or
to possess with intent to sell, any obscene visual depiction.
Section 1461. This section declares to be “nonmailable matter” any “obscene,
lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance,”
and makes it a crime knowingly to mail nonmailable matter. This statute should be
read to prohibit only what constitutionally may be prohibited.64
Section 1462. This section prohibits importation of, and interstate or foreign
transportation of, “any obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” printed matter, film, or
sound recording, “or other matter of indecent character.” The Supreme Court has
written that, if and when serious doubt is raised as to the vagueness of the terms used
in section 1462,
we are prepared to construe such terms as limiting regulated material to patently
offensive representations or descriptions of that specific “hard core” sexual
conduct given as examples in Miller v. California, ante, at 25. . . . Of course,
Congress could always define other specific “hard core” conduct.65
In 1996, P.L. 104-104, § 507(a), amended 18 U.S.C. § 1462 to apply to any
“interactive computer service.”
Section 1463. This section prohibits mailing matter, “upon the envelope or
outside cover or wrapper of which, and all postal cards, upon which, any
delineations, epithets, terms, or language of an indecent, lewd, lascivious, or obscene
character are written or printed or otherwise impressed or apparent.” Under this
provision, “language of an ‘indecent’ character must be equated with language of an
Id. at 1541-1543; see, text accompanying note 4, supra.
See, United States v. Merrill, 746 F.2d 458 (9th Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1165
United States v. 12 200-Ft. Reels of Film, 413 U.S. 123, 130 n.7 (1973).
‘obscene’ character” (and does not include “writing [on a post card] that a female
runs around a dwelling house naked”).66
Section 1464. This section provides, in full:
Whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio
communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two
years, or both.67
This statute, unlike the others cited thus far, may be applied to language that is
not obscene under Miller. This is because broadcasting has more limited First
Amendment protection than other media. As the Supreme Court explained in Red
Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission:
Where there are substantially more individuals who want to broadcast than there
are frequencies to allocate, it is idle to posit an unabridgeable First Amendment
right to broadcast comparable to the right of every individual to speak, write, or
In Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, the FCC had
taken action against a radio station for broadcasting a recording of George Carlin’s
“Filthy Words” monologue at 2 p.m., and the station had claimed First Amendment
protection.69 The Supreme Court upheld the power of the FCC under § 1464 “to
regulate a radio broadcast that is indecent but not obscene.”70 The Court cited two
distinctions between broadcasting and other media: “First, the broadcast media have
established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans . . .
confront[ing] the citizen, not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home . . . ,”
and “Second, broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children . . . .”71
United States v. Keller, 259 F.2d 54, 57, 58 (3d Cir. 1958).
This statute dates back to section 326 of the Communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 1091,
which is why it uses only the term “radio.” The term “radio,” however, today includes
broadcast television; i.e., television transmitted over radio waves. In dictum, the Supreme
Court quoted the FCC with approving as noting that “the televising of nudes might well
raise a serious question of programming contrary to 18 U.S.C. § 1464. . . .” Federal
Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 741 n.16 (1978) (not
addressing whether nudes are “language” under § 1464). “Radio communication” is defined
for purposes of Title 47, U.S. Code, to mean “the transmission by radio of writing, signs,
signals, pictures, and sounds of all kinds . . . .” 47 U.S.C. § 153(33) (emphasis added).
395 U.S. 367, 388 (1969). In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of
the Federal Communication Commission’s “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcast
media licensees to provide coverage of controversial issues of interest to the community and
to provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such
438 U.S. 726 (1978).
Id. at 729.
Id. at 748-749.
Nevertheless, the broadcast media have some First Amendment protection, and
the Court emphasized the narrowness of its holding:
This case does not involve a two-way radio conversation between a cab driver
and a dispatcher, or a telecast of an Elizabethan comedy. We have not decided
that an occasional expletive in either setting would justify any sanction. . . . The
time of day was emphasized by the Commission. The content of the program in
which the language is used will also affect the composition of the audience. . . .72
Section 1464, as quoted above, refers to “obscene, indecent, or profane
language.” The Court in Pacifica noted that, to be indecent, a broadcast need not
have prurient appeal; “the normal definition of ‘indecent’ merely refers to
nonconformance with accepted standards of morality.”73 The FCC holds that the
concept “is intimately connected with the exposure of children to language that
describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community
standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities and organs, at
times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the
audience.”74 The FCC applied this definition in a case in which the singer Bono said
at the Golden Globe Awards that his award was “f[***]ing brilliant.” The FCC
Enforcement Bureau found that use of the word “as an adjective or expletive to
emphasize an exclamation” did not fall within the definition of “indecent.” The
Commission, however, overturned the Bureau, ruling that “any use of that word or
a variation, in any context, inherently has a sexual connotation. . . .” The
Commission also found that Bono’s phrase was “profane” under § 1464, defining
“profane” as “those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent
resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who
actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”75
In 1988, Congress enacted P.L. 100-459, § 608, which required the FCC to
promulgate regulations to ban indecent broadcasts 24 hours a day. The FCC did so,
but the regulations never took effect because the court of appeals declared the ban
unconstitutional because “the Commission may not ban such broadcasts entirely.”76
Pacifica, supra, 438 U.S. at 750. A federal court of appeals subsequently held
unconstitutional a federal statute that banned “indecent” broadcasts 24 hours a day, but, in
a later case, the same court upheld the present statute, 47 U.S.C. § 303 note, which bans
“indecent” broadcasts from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Action for Children’s Television v. FCC, 932
F.2d 1504 (D.C. Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 913 (1992); Action for Children’s
Television v. FCC, 58 F.3d 654 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (en banc), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1043
Pacifica, supra, 438 U.S. at 740.
Id. at 732. See, note 62, supra.
In the Matter of Complaints Against Various Broadcast Licensees Regarding Their Airing
of the “Golden Globe Awards” Program, File No. EB-03-IH-0110 (Mar. 18, 2004). For
additional information, including an analysis of whether prohibiting the broadcast of
“indecent” words regardless of context would violate the First Amendment, see CRS Report
RL32222, Regulation of Broadcast Indecency: Background and Legal Analysis.
Action for Children’s Television v. Federal Communications Commission (ACT II), 932
In 1992, Congress enacted P.L. 102-356, § 16 of which required the FCC to
promulgate regulations that prohibit broadcasting of indecent programming on radio
and television from 6 a.m. to midnight, except for public radio and television stations
that go off the air at or before midnight, which may broadcast such material
beginning at 10 p.m. 47 U.S.C. § 303 note. In 1993, a three-judge panel of the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held the law unconstitutional, but, on
June 30, 1995, the full court of appeals, by a 7-4 vote, overturned the panel and
upheld the statute, except for its 10 p.m.-to-midnight ban imposed on non-public
The court of appeals found “that the Government has a compelling interest in
supporting parental supervision of what children see and hear on the public
airwaves,”78 and “that the Government has an independent and compelling interest
in preventing minors from being exposed to indecent broadcasts.”79 The court found,
in addition, that the statute used the least restrictive means to serve these interests.80
However, the court found that “Congress has failed to explain what, if any,
relationship the disparate treatment accorded certain public stations bears to the
compelling Government interest — or to any other legislative value — that Congress
sought to advance when it enacted section 16(a).”81 The court therefore held “that
the section is unconstitutional insofar as it bars the broadcasting of indecent speech
between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and midnight.”82
Section 1465. This section makes it a crime knowingly to transport in
interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of sale or distribution, any “obscene,
lewd, lascivious, or filthy” material, “or any other matter of indecent or immoral
character.” It also makes it a crime knowingly to travel in interstate commerce, or
to use any facility or means of interstate commerce, for the purpose of transporting
obscene material in interstate or foreign commerce. Section 1465 should be read as
F.2d 1504, 1509 (D.C. Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 913 (1992).
Action for Children’s Television v. Federal Communications Commission (ACT III), 58
F.3d 654 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (en banc), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1043 (1996).
Id. at 661.
Id. at 663.
The court wrote: “While we apply strict scrutiny to regulations of this kind regardless of
the medium affected by them, our assessment of whether section 16(a) survives that scrutiny
must necessarily take into account the unique context of the broadcast media.” Id. at 660.
Chief Judge Edwards, in his dissent, wrote: “This is the heart of the case, plain and simple,”
as “[t]he majority appears to recognize that section 16(a) could not withstand constitutional
scrutiny if applied against cable television operators.” Id. at 671.
Id. at 668.
Id. at 669. Note that the court struck down the 10 p.m.-to-midnight ban not because it
failed strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, but because it applied only to non-public
stations. Chief Judge Edwards, in his dissent, commented that “the majority appears to
invite Congress to extend the 6 a.m. to midnight ban to all broadcasters, without exception.”
Id. at 670 n.1.
limited by the Miller standard.83 The President’s message that accompanied the
original proposal that became P.L. 100-690 states:
The term “facility of commerce” would include such things as the federal
interstate highway system, federally numbered highways, and interstate railroads,
even if such facility were used only intrastate. The term “means of interstate
commerce” would include motor vehicles, boats, and airplanes capable of
carrying goods in interstate commerce. The new offense would be committed,
for example, by transporting obscene material by truck via Interstate 95 from
Richmond to Alexandria, Virginia, with the intent that at least part of it would
then be sold to customers outside of Virginia.84
In 1994, in Memphis, Tennessee, Robert and Carleen Thomas, a husband and
wife from Milpitas, California, were convicted and sentenced to prison under 18
U.S.C. § 1465 for transmitting obscenity, from California, over interstate phone lines
through their members-only computer bulletin board. The Sixth Circuit affirmed,
holding that 18 U.S.C. § 1465 applies to computer transmissions.85 The defendants
had also raised a First Amendment issue, arguing that they “cannot select who gets
the materials they make available on their bulletin boards. Therefore, they contend,
BBS [bulletin board service] operators like Defendants will be forced to censor their
materials so as not to run afoul of the standards of the community with the most
restrictive standards.”86 The court did not decide the issue because it found that, in
this case, the defendants had transmitted only to members whose addresses they
knew, so “[i]f Defendants did not wish to subject themselves to liability in
jurisdictions with less tolerant standards for determining obscenity, they could have
refused to give passwords to members in those districts, thus precluding the risk of
In 1996, P.L. 104-104, § 507(b), amended 18 U.S.C. § 1465 to apply to any
“interactive computer service.”
Section 1466. This section makes it a crime for any person “engaged in the
business of selling or transferring obscene matter” knowingly to receive or possess
with intent to distribute any obscene material that has been transported in interstate
United States v. Alexander, 498 F.2d 934, 935-936 (2d Cir. 1974).
H.R. Doc. No. 100-129, 100th Cong., 1st Sess. 78 (1987).
United States v. Thomas, 74 F.3d 701 (6th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 820 (1996).
The court cited another conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1465 for computer pornography —
this one by an Air Force court. United States v. Maxwell, 42 M.J. 568 (A.F.Ct.Crim. App.
Id. at 711. In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, supra note 12, the Supreme Court
noted that “the ‘community standards’ criterion as applied to the Internet means that any
communication available to a nation-wide audience will be judged by the standards of the
community most likely to be offended by the message.” In Ashcroft v. American Civil
Liberties Union, infra note 125, the Supreme Court held that the use of community
standards to assess “harmful to minors” material on the Internet is not by itself
or foreign commerce. Offering to sell or transfer, at one time, two or more copies of
any obscene publication, or a combined total of five, shall create a rebuttable
presumption that the person so offering them is “engaged in the business.” In other
words, if the government proved that the defendant had offered to sell, at one time,
two or more copies of any obscene publication, or a combined total of five, then the
defendant would be deemed to be “engaged in the business” unless he could prove
Section 1466A. Section 504 of the PROTECT Act, P.L. 108-21 (2003),
created this section, which makes it a crime knowingly to produce, distribute,
receive, or possess, with or without intent to distribute, “a visual depiction of any
kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting,” that depicts a minor
engaging in sexually explicit conduct and is obscene or lacks serious literary, artistic,
political, or scientific value. Section 1466A applies whether an actual minor is used
or not, but covers only depictions of minors engaged in specified sexual activities,
and not in lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area. To the extent that
§ 1466A applies to non-obscene material produced without the use of an actual
minor, it would be unconstitutional under Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition.88
Section 1467. This section provides for criminal forfeiture in obscenity cases.
Specifically, it provides that a person convicted under the federal obscenity statute
(18 U.S.C. §§ 1460-1469) shall forfeit to the United States (1) the obscene material,
(2) property traceable to gross profits or other proceeds obtained from the obscene
material, (3) property used or intended to be used to commit the offense, “if the court
in its discretion so determines, taking into consideration the nature, scope, and
proportionality of the use of the property in the offense.” Thus, the court must
determine, for example, whether a vehicle used to transport obscene material was
owned by the defendant and was frequently used for that purpose, or, on the other
hand, whether it had been borrowed from someone who had no knowledge of the use
to which the defendant intended to put it.
The right of the United States to the property vests upon violation of the
obscenity statute, not upon conviction. Therefore, property that was transferred
between the violation and the conviction belongs to the United States, and shall also
be forfeited. However, the statute contains an exception precluding forfeiture if the
person to whom the property was transferred establishes that at the time of purchase
he “was reasonably without cause to believe that the property was subject to forfeiture.” Thus, if a person is convicted and the money he paid his lawyer to defend him
can be traced to gross profits from the sale of obscene material, the lawyer may be
required to forfeit the money unless he can convince the court that he had no
reasonable cause to believe that the money was subject to forfeiture.89 The Supreme
Court has held that forfeiture of lawyers’ fees under the federal drug forfeiture statute
535 U.S. 234 (2002).
The lawyer could argue that the money came from a source independent of his client’s
alleged criminal activity; it seems less certain whether he could argue that, at the time his
client paid him, he (the lawyer) was reasonably without cause to believe that the money was
subject to forfeiture because he reasonably believed that his client would be found not
does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment or criminal
defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice.90
Section 1467(c) provides that, prior to conviction, upon application of the
United States, a court may issue an ex parte restraining order or injunction “to
preserve the availability of property . . . for forfeiture.” Section 1467(d) authorizes
courts to issue warrants for the seizure of property solely upon a showing of
“probable cause to believe that the property to be seized would, in the event of
conviction, be subject to forfeiture and that an order under subsection (c) of this
section may not be sufficient to assure the availability of the property for forfeiture.”
A federal district court declared these provisions unconstitutional insofar as they
allow “seizure or restraint . . . without a prior adversarial hearing.”91 The court based
this holding on the Supreme Court’s decision in Fort Wayne Books, which is
discussed in the section on RICO, below.
The court also declared two aspects of the post-conviction criminal forfeiture
provisions unconstitutional. However, on appeal, the court of appeals, without
addressing its merits, vacated the entire decision on the ground that, because the
government had not threatened the plaintiffs with enforcement, the plaintiffs’ claims
were not ripe for judicial resolution.92
Section 1468. This section, enacted in 1988, makes it a crime “knowingly to
utter[ ] obscene language or distribute[ ] any obscene matter by means of cable
television or subscription services on television.” The section defines “distribute”
to include transmissions by “wire, microwave, or satellite.” Similarly, 47 U.S.C.
§ 559, enacted in 1984, makes it a crime to “transmit[ ] over any cable system any
matter which is obscene or otherwise unprotected by the Constitution of the United
States.” The President’s message that accompanied the original proposal that became
section 1468 explained that the reason for its enactment was that ambiguities in Title
47 of the U.S. Code made it “unclear under what circumstances, if any, the federal
government could enforce [47 U.S.C. § 559].”93
Section 1468 also provides that no provision of federal law is intended to
preempt the power of the states, including their political subdivisions, “to regulate
the uttering of language that is obscene or otherwise unprotected by the Constitution
or the distribution of matter that is obscene or otherwise unprotected by the
There are also other statutes codified in title 47 of the U.S. Code that regulate
obscenity and indecency on cable television; see below.
Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989).
American Library Association v. Thornburgh, 713 F. Supp. 469, 485 (D.D.C. 1989),
vacated sub nom. American Library Association v. Barr, 956 F.2d 1178 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
Id. at 1196.
H.R. Doc. No. 100-129, supra note 84, at 93.
Section 1469. This section creates a rebuttable presumption that an item
produced in one state and subsequently located in another, or produced outside the
United States and subsequently located in the United States, was transported in
interstate or foreign commerce. This means that, if the government proves the
change of location, then, unless the defendant shows that the allegedly obscene
material had not been transported in interstate or foreign commerce, it would be
deemed to have been so transported.
Section 1470. This section, added by P.L. 105-314, § 401 (1998), makes it
a crime to use the mail or interstate or foreign commerce knowingly to transfer
obscene matter to a person under 16, knowing that such person is under 16.
D. Cable Television
In addition to 18 U.S.C. § 1468 and 47 U.S.C. § 559 (discussed above under
“Section 1468”), both of which prohibit obscenity on cable television, various
provisions in the Communications Act of 1934, codified in title 47 of the U.S. Code,
regulate obscenity and indecency on cable television.
In 1994, in Turner Broadcasting System v. Federal Communications
Commission, which did not involve obscenity or indecency, the Supreme Court held
that cable television is entitled to full First Amendment protection.94 It wrote in
Turner: “In light of these fundamental technological differences between broadcast
and cable transmission, application of the more relaxed standard of scrutiny, adopted
in Red Lion and other broadcast cases is inapt when determining the First
Amendment validity of cable regulation.”95 In 1996, in Denver Area Educational
Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, a
plurality of the Justices retreated from the Court’s position in Turner. They wrote:
“The Court’s distinction in Turner, . . . between cable and broadcast television, relied
on the inapplicability of the spectrum scarcity problem to cable. . . . While that
distinction was relevant in Turner to the justification for structural regulations at
issue there (the ‘must carry’ rules), it has little to do with a case that involves the
effects of television viewing on children.”96
In Part II of the Denver Consortium opinion, a plurality (four justices) upheld
§ 10(a) of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992,
47 U.S.C. § 532(h), which permits cable operators to prohibit indecent material on
leased access channels.97 In upholding § 10(a), the Court, citing Pacifica, noted that
cable television “is as ‘accessible to children’ as over-the-air broadcasting,” has also
512 U.S. 622 (1994).
Id. at 639.
518 U.S. 727, 748 (1996).
The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, P.L. 98-549, had required cable operators
to provide leased access and public access channels free of operator editorial control. 47
U.S.C. §§ 531(e), 532(c)(2). These two provisions were amended in 1996 by § 506 of the
Communications Decency Act to permit cable operators to refuse to transmit “obscenity,
indecency, or nudity.”
“established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans,” and can
also “‘confron[t] the citizen’ in ‘the privacy of the home,’ . . . with little or no prior
warning.”98 Applying something less than strict scrutiny, the Court concluded “that
§ 10(a) is a sufficiently tailored response to an extraordinarily important problem.”99
It also found that “the statute is not impermissibly vague.”100
In Part III of Denver Consortium, a majority (six justices) struck down § 10(b)
of the 1992 Act, 47 U.S.C. § 532(j), which required cable operators, if they do not
prohibit such programming on leased access channels, to segregate it on a single
channel and block that channel unless the subscriber requests access to it in writing.
In this part of the opinion, the Court appeared to apply strict scrutiny, finding “that
protection of children is a ‘compelling interest,’” but “that, not only is [§ 10(b)] not
a ‘least restrictive alternative,’ and is not ‘narrowly tailored’ to meet its legitimate
objective, it also seems considerably ‘more extensive than necessary.’”101
In Part IV, which only three justices joined, the Court struck down § 10(c), 42
U.S.C. § 531 note, which permitted cable operators to prohibit indecent material on
public access channels. Without specifying the level of scrutiny they were applying,
the justices concluded “that the Government cannot sustain its burden of showing
that §10(c) is necessary to protect children or that it is appropriately tailored to secure
Another relevant statute concerning cable television is 47 U.S.C. § 544(d)(1),
which provides that a franchising authority and a cable operator may specify, in
granting or renewing a franchise, “that certain cable services shall not be provided
or shall be provided subject to conditions, if such cable services are obscene or are
otherwise unprotected by the Constitution of the United States.” In addition, 47
U.S.C. § 544(d)(2)(A) provides: “In order to restrict the viewing of programming
which is obscene or indecent, upon the request of a subscriber, a cable operator shall
provide (by sale or lease) a device by which the subscriber can prohibit viewing of
a particular cable service during a period selected by that subscriber.”
The Communications Decency Act of 1996, P.L. 104-104, which is known
primarily for its provisions regulating computer-transmitted indecency, also
contained provisions concerning cable television. Section 504 added § 640 to the
Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. § 560, which provides:
Upon request by a cable service subscriber, a cable operator shall, without
charge, fully scramble or otherwise fully block the audio and video programming
of each channel carrying such programming so that one not a subscriber does not
Denver Consortium, supra note 96, 518 U.S., at 744-745.
Id. at 743.
Id. at 753.
Id. at 755.
Id. at 766. Two other justices concurred in the judgment that § 10(c) is invalid, but for
This section includes no restriction on the type of material that a subscriber may
request to have blocked.
Section 505 added § 641, 47 U.S.C. § 561, which provides:
(a) In providing sexually explicit adult programming or other programming that
is indecent on any channel of its service primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented
programming, a multichannel video programming distributor shall fully scramble
or otherwise fully block the video and audio portion of such channel so that one
not a subscriber does not receive it.
(b) Until a multichannel video programming distributor complies with the
requirement set forth in subsection (a), the distributor shall limit the access of
children to the programming referred to in that subsection by not providing such
programming during the hours of the day (as determined by the [Federal
Communications] Commission) when a significant number of children are likely
to be viewing it.
On May 22, 2000, the Supreme Court declared § 505 unconstitutional, making
clear, as it had not in Denver Consortium, that strict scrutiny applies to content-based
speech restrictions on cable television.103 The Court noted that “[t]he purpose of
§ 505 is to shield children from hearing or seeing images resulting from signal
bleed,” which refers to images or sounds that come through to non-subscribers, even
though cable operators have “used scrambling in the regular course of business, so
that only paying customers had access to certain programs.”104 Section 505 requires
cable operators to implement more effective scrambling — to fully scramble or
otherwise fully block programming so that non-subscribers do not receive it — or to
“time channel,” which, under an F.C.C. regulation meant to transmit the
programming only from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“To comply with the statute,” the Court noted, “the majority of cable operators
adopted the second, or ‘time channeling,’ approach.105 The effect . . . was to
eliminate altogether the transmission of the targeted programming outside the safe
harbor period [6 a.m. to 10 p.m.] in affected cable service areas. In other words, for
two-thirds of the day no household in those service areas could receive the
programming, whether or not the household or the viewer wanted to do so.”106 The
Court also noted that “[t]he speech in question was not thought by Congress to be so
United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803, 813 (2000). The
decision was 5-4, with Justices Breyer, Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Scalia dissenting.
Id. at 806.
Id. They may have done so because fully blocking or fully scrambling “appears not be
economical” (id. at 808) or because the technology is imperfect and cable operators
attempting to fully block or fully scramble might have still been “faced with the possibility
of sanctions for intermittent bleeding” (id. at 821).
Id. at 806-807.
harmful that all channels were subject to restriction. Instead, the statutory disability
applies only to channels ‘primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented programming.’”107
As “a content-based speech restriction,” the Court wrote, § 505 “can stand only
if it satisfies strict scrutiny. . . . [I]t must . . . promote a compelling Government
interest. . . . If a less restrictive alternative would serve the Government’s purpose,
the legislature must use that alternative.” The Court did not explicitly say in this case
that protecting children from sexually oriented signal bleed is a compelling interest,
but assumed it, and addressed the question of whether § 505 constituted the least
restrictive means to advance that interest.108
The Court noted that there is “a key difference between cable television and the
broadcasting media, which is the point on which this case turns: Cable systems have
the capacity to block unwanted channels on a household-by-household basis. . . .
[T]argeted blocking enables the Government to support parental authority without
affecting the First Amendment interests of speakers and willing listeners . . . .”109
Furthermore, targeted blocking is already required — by § 504 of the CDA, which,
as noted above, requires cable operators, upon request by a cable service subscriber,
to, without charge, fully scramble or otherwise fully block audio and video
programming that the subscriber does not wish to receive. “When a plausible, less
restrictive alternative is offered to a content-based speech restriction, it is the
Government’s obligation to prove that the alternative will be ineffective to achieve
its goal. The Government has not met that burden here.”110 The Court concluded,
therefore, that § 504, with adequate publicity to parents of their rights under it,
constituted a less restrictive alternative to § 505.
One additional provision of the CDA affected cable television: § 506 amended
47 U.S.C. §§ 531(e) and 532(c)(2) to permit cable operators to refuse to transmit
“obscenity, indecency, or nudity” on public access and leased access channels.111
Id. at 812.
The Court wrote: “Even upon the assumption that the Government has an interest in
substituting itself for informed and empowered parents, its interest is not sufficiently
compelling to justify this widespread restriction on speech.” Id. at 825. The Court, in other
words, while assuming that the government has a compelling interest in aiding parents in
protecting their children from sexually oriented signal bleed, did not find that the
government has a compelling interest in protecting children from such material when their
parents allow it into the home. The Court also noted “the possibility that a graphic image
could have a negative impact on a young child.” Id. at 826. This suggests the possibility
that the Court might not find a compelling interest in shielding older children from sexually
Id. at 815.
Id. at 816.
Justice Kennedy, in the only footnote to his concurring and dissenting opinion in Denver
Consortium, wrote that the constitutionality of the amendments made by § 506, “to the
extent they differ from the provisions here [§§ 10(a) and 10(c) of the 1992 Act], is not
before us.” 518 U.S., at 782.
E. The Communications Decency Act of 1996
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) is Title V of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, P.L. 104-104. This report has previously noted
amendments the act made to 18 U.S.C. §§ 1462 and 1465, and provisions relating to
cable television that it added to Title 47 of the U.S. Code. This section of the report
examines § 502 of the act, which would have limited indecent material transmitted
by telecommunications devices and interactive computer services, and Reno v.
American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court decision holding it
Section 502 rewrote 47 U.S.C. § 223(a) and added subsections (d) through (h)
to 47 U.S.C. § 223. It did not amend subsections (b) or (c), which restrict
commercial dial-a-porn services (see page 10, above). In Reno, the Supreme Court
struck down § 223(a) in part and § 223(d) in whole.
47 U.S.C. § 223(a). Prior to its amendment by § 603 of the PROTECT Act,
P.L. 108-21 (2003), § 223(a)(1)(A) made it a crime, by means of a
telecommunications device, knowingly to transmit a communication that is “obscene,
lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass
another person.” Prior to its amendment by § 603 of the PROTECT Act,
§ 223(a)(1)(B) made it a crime, by means of a telecommunications device, knowingly
to transmit a communication that is “obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient
of the communication is under 18 years of age. . . .” Section 223(a)(2) makes it a
crime knowingly to permit any telecommunications facility under one’s control to be
used for any activity prohibited by § 223(a)(1) with the intent that it be used for such
Although the CDA defines “telecommunications,”114 it does not define
“telecommunications device.” However, it provides in § 223(h)(1)(B) that the term
“does not include the use of an interactive computer service.”115 Thus, it appears that
Reno, supra, note 12, 521 U.S. 844 (1997).
In ApolloMedia Corp. v. Reno, 19 F. Supp.2d 1081, 1084 (N.D. Cal. 1998), aff’d, 526
U.S. 1061 (1999), the plaintiff sought to enjoin enforcement of § 223(a)(1)(A) and
§ 223(a)(2) “on the grounds that . . . , to the extent that they prohibit ‘indecent’
communications made ‘with an intent to annoy,’ [they] are impermissibly overbroad and
vague. . . .” The three-judge court denied the plaintiff’s request because it found that “the
provisions regulate only ‘obscene’ communications.” The Supreme Court affirmed without
a written opinion. The plaintiffs reportedly had appealed because they believed that the fact
that the word “indecent” was in the statute could have a chilling effect on indecent
nonobscene expression, even if the law was not enforceable against such expression.
Section 3 of P.L. 104-104 added to 47 U.S.C. § 153 the following definition of
“telecommunications”: “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user,
of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the format or content of the
information as sent and received.” The conference report adds that this information includes
“voice, data, image, graphics, and video.”
Section 230(f)(2) (added by § 509) defines “interactive computer service” as “any
§ 223(a)(1)(A) and (B) are intended to apply to communications, by telephone, fax
machine, or computer, that are sent to particular individuals, not those that can be
accessed by multiple users.
In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court declared
§ 223(a)(1)(B) unconstitutional insofar as it applies to “indecent” communications.
Section 603 of the PROTECT Act amended § 223(a)(1)(A) by substituting “or
child pornography” for “lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent.” Thus, § 223(a)(1)(A)
now bans only obscenity and child pornography, both of which are unprotected by
the First Amendment. Section 223(a)(1)(A) thereby no longer raises the
constitutional issue raised by the case cited in footnote 111.
Section 603 of the PROTECT Act amended § 223(a)(1)(B) by substituting
“child pornography” for “indecent,” so that it too now bans only obscenity and child
pornography, and no longer raises the constitutional issue that gave rise to Reno v.
American Civil Liberties Union.
47 U.S.C. § 223(d). Prior to its amendment by § 603 of the PROTECT Act,
§ 223(d) made it a crime knowingly to use “an interactive computer service to send
to a specific person or persons under 18 years of age, or . . . to display in a manner
available to a person under 18 years of age, any . . . communication that, in context,
depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary
community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs . . . .” (italics added)
This prohibition seems equivalent to a prohibition of “indecent” material, but
§ 223(d) does not use the word “indecent,” a fact of which the Supreme Court took
note in Reno when it held § 223(d) unconstitutional.116
Section 603 of the PROTECT Act amended § 223(d)(1) by substituting “is
obscene or child pornography” for the words italicized above. Section 223(d) thus
no longer raises the constitutional issue that gave rise to Reno v. American Civil
Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union. The Supreme Court found in
this case that “the CDA is a content-based blanket restriction on speech . . . .”117 As
such, it may be found constitutional only if it serves “to promote a compelling
interest” and is “the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest.”118 As
for whether the CDA promotes a compelling interest, although the Court referred to
“the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from
information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer
access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that
provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or
See, Reno, supra note 12, 521 U.S., at 871.
Id. at 868.
Sable, supra note 4.
harmful materials,”119 it suggested that there may be less of a governmental interest
in protecting older children from indecent material — at least such material as had
artistic or educational value.120
As for whether the CDA is the least restrictive means to further the
governmental interest, the Court found that “the Government [failed] to explain why
a less restrictive provision would not be as effective as the CDA.”121 The CDA’s
“burden on adult speech,” the Court held, “is unacceptable if less restrictive
alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving the legitimate purpose that the
statute was enacted to serve.”122 “[T]he Government may not ‘reduc[e] the adult
population . . . to . . . only what is fit for children.’”123
Could Congress reenact the CDA be reenacted in a narrower form that would
be constitutional? The Supreme Court did not say, but it did not foreclose the
possibility. It wrote:
The arguments in this Court have referred to possible alternatives such as
requiring that indecent material be “tagged” in a way that facilitates parental
control of material coming into their homes, making exceptions for messages
with artistic or educational value, providing some tolerance for parental choice,
and regulating some portions of the Internet — such as commercial web sites —
differently from others, such as chat rooms.124
F. Child Online Protection Act
On October 21, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Omnibus
Appropriations Act for FY1999 (P.L. 105-277), title XIV of which is the Child
Online Protection Act (COPA). This law was an attempt to enact a constitutional
version of the CDA. Its enforcement has thus far been enjoined, and the Supreme
Court, on October 14, 2003, agreed to rule on the injunction.125
COPA differs from the CDA in two main respects: (1) it prohibits
communication to minors only of material that is “harmful to minors,” rather than
material that is indecent, and (2) it applies only to communications for commercial
Reno, supra note 12, 521 U.S., at 849.
See, id. at 878. The Court wrote: “[A] parent who sent his 17-year-old college freshman
information on birth control via e-mail could be incarcerated even though neither he, his
child, nor anyone in their home community found the material ‘indecent’ or ‘patently
offensive,’ if the college town’s community thought otherwise.” Id.
Id. at 879.
Id. at 874.
Id. at 875.
Id. at 879.
American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, 31 F. Supp.2d 473 (E.D. Pa. 1999), aff’d, 217
F.3d 162 (3d Cir. 2000), vacated and remanded sub nom. Ashcroft v. American Civil
Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564 (2002), aff’d on remand, 322 F.3d 240 (3d Cir. 2003), aff’d
and remanded, No. 03-218 (June 29, 2004).
purposes on publicly accessible websites. It defines “material that is harmful to
minors” as pictures or words that —
(A) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would
find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to
appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest;
(B) depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect
to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or
simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or
post-pubescent female breast; and
(C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value
A communication is deemed to be for “commercial purposes” if it is made in
the regular course of a trade or business with the objective of earning a profit; a
communication need not propose a commercial transaction to be deemed to be for
“commercial purposes.” Requiring a viewer to use a credit card, or to verify his age,
to gain access to material on the Internet would constitute a defense to prosecution.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Reno, is COPA constitutional? The
fact that COPA makes exceptions for messages with serious literary, artistic,
political, or scientific value for minors, and that it applies only to commercial
websites, makes it more likely than the CDA to be upheld. Nevertheless it may well,
like the CDA, be found to “suppress[ ] a large amount of speech that adults have a
constitutional right to receive and to address to one another.”127 This is because a
website that is freely accessible, but is deemed “commercial” because it seeks to
make a profit through advertisements, would apparently have to stop making its
website freely accessible, or, in the alternative, would have to remove all words and
pictures that might be deemed “harmful to minors” “by the standards of the
community most likely to be offended by the message.”128
COPA was scheduled to take effect on November 20, 1998, but a coalition of
17 civil liberties groups filed suit challenging it, and, on November 19, Judge Reed
of the federal district court in Philadelphia, finding that there was a likelihood that
the plaintiffs would prevail, issued a temporary restraining order against enforcement
of the law. On February 1, 1999, he issued a preliminary injunction against
enforcement pending a trial on the merits. The preliminary injunction applies to all
Internet users (not just the plaintiffs in this case) and provides that, even if the law
Despite the fact that only the first prong of this test refers to “community standards,”
community standards are apparently also intended to be used in applying the second prong.
See footnote 7 of the Supreme Court’s opinion, supra note 125.
Reno, supra note 12, 521 U.S., at 874.
Id. at 877-878. In support of the law’s constitutionality, one might analogize its
restriction on speech to state law bans on “public display and unattended sale, in places
where minors might be present, of ‘obscene-as-to-minors’ materials.” See, Eugene Volokh,
Freedom of Speech, Shielding Children, and Transcending Balance, 1997 SUP. CT. REV.
is ultimately upheld, the Administration may not prosecute online speakers
retroactively. On June 22, 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
upheld the preliminary injunction, as it was “confident that the ACLU’s attack on
COPA’s constitutionality is likely to succeed on the merits.”129 On May 13, 2002,
the Supreme Court vacated the Third Circuit’s opinion and remanded the case for
further proceedings. It did not, however, remove the preliminary injunction against
enforcement of the statute. On March 6, 2003, the Third Circuit again affirmed the
district court’s preliminary injunction. Finally, on June 29, 2004, the Supreme Court
affirmed the preliminary injunction and remanded the case for trial. We now
consider these five opinions in turn.
In issuing the preliminary injunction, the district court found that “[i]t is clear
that Congress has a compelling interest in the protection of minors, including
shielding them from materials that are not obscene by adult standards.”130 It also
found, however, that “it is not apparent to this Court that the defendant can meet its
burden to prove that COPA is the least restrictive means available to achieve the goal
of restricting the access of minors to this material.”131 This is because “[t]he record
before the Court reveals that blocking or filtering technology may be at least as
successful as COPA would be in restricting minors’ access to harmful material online
without imposing the burden on constitutionally protected speech that COPA
imposes on adult users or website operators.”132 In addition, “the sweeping category
of forms of content that are prohibited — ‘any communication, picture, image,
graphic image file, article, recording, writing, or other matter of any kind’ (emphasis
added [by the court]) — could have been less restrictive of speech on the Web and
more narrowly tailored to Congress’ goal of shielding minors from pornographic
teasers if the prohibited forms of content had included, for instances, only pictures,
images, or graphic image files, which are typically employed by adult entertainment
websites as ‘teasers.’ In addition, perhaps the goals of Congress could be served
without the imposition of possibly excessive and serious criminal penalties, including
imprisonment and hefty fines, for communicating speech that is protected as to adults
or without exposing speakers to prosecution and placing the burden of establishing
an affirmative defense on them instead of incorporating the substance of the
affirmative defenses in the elements of the crime.”133
On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed on a different ground: “because the
standard by which COPA gauges whether material is ‘harmful to minors’ is based on
identifying ‘contemporary community standards’ the inability of Web publishers to
restrict access to their websites based on the geographic locale of the site visitor, in
and of itself, imposes an impermissible burden on constitutionally protected First
Id., 217 F.3d, at 166.
Id., 31 F. Supp.2d, at 495.
Id. at 497.
Amendment speech.”134 This is because it results in communications available to a
nationwide audience being judged by the standards of the community most likely to
be offended. Applying strict scrutiny, the Third Circuit concluded that, though “[i]t
is undisputed that the government has a compelling interest in protecting children
from material that is harmful to them, even if not obscene by adult standards,”135 the
government “may not regulate at all if it turns out that even the least restrictive means
of regulation is still unreasonable when its limitations on freedom of speech are
balanced against the benefits gained from those limitations.”136
The Supreme Court held that COPA’s “use of ‘community standards’ to identify
‘material that is harmful to minors’ . . . does not render the statute facially
unconstitutional” — it “does not by itself render the statute substantially overbroad
for purposes of the First Amendment.”137 Although there were five separate opinions
in the case, eight of the nine justices favored remanding the case to the Third Circuit
to consider whether the act was nevertheless unconstitutional. Only Justice Stevens
dissented, as only he believed that the use of community standards was a sufficient
problem to warrant an affirmance of the Third Circuit’s opinion.
The Court’s statement that COPA’s use of community standards does not by
itself render the statute unconstitutional implies that COPA’s use of community
standards may nevertheless prove a factor among others that renders the statute
unconstitutional. Justice Thomas, however, despite writing the opinion for the Court,
including the by itself language quoted above, wrote, in a section of the opinion
joined only by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia, “that any variance caused
by the statute’s reliance on community standards is not substantial enough to violate
the First Amendment.”138 Justice Thomas also commented: “If a publisher wishes
for its material to be judged only by the standards of particular communities [and not
by the most puritanical community], then it need only take the simple step of utilizing
a medium [a medium other than the Internet] that enables it to target the release of
its materials into those communities.”139 Justice Stevens responded that the Court
should “place the burden on parents to ‘take the simple step of utilizing a medium
that enables’ . . . them to avoid this material before requiring the speaker to find
Justice Kennedy, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Souter and
Ginsburg, found that “[w]e cannot know whether variation in community standards
renders the act substantially overbroad without first assessing the extent of speech
Id., 217 F.3d, at 166.
Id. at 173.
Id. at 179.
Ashcroft, supra note 125, 535 U.S. 564, 585 (2002) (emphasis in original).
Id. at 583.
Id. at 606 n.2.
covered and the variations in community standards with respect to that speech.”141
Justice Kennedy believed that, before an assessment could be made, the Third Circuit
should consider such questions as how much material COPA prohibits, how much
the standard of the most puritanical community in the nation differ from standards
of other communities, “what it means to evaluate Internet material ‘as a whole,’” and
the number of venues in which the government could prosecute violations of the
Justices O’Connor and Breyer wrote separate concurring opinions. Justice
O’Connor agreed with Justice Kennedy that the plaintiffs had failed “to demonstrate
substantial overbreadth due solely to the variation between local communities,”143
and Justice Breyer, to avoid a First Amendment problem, would have construed the
phrase “community standard” in the statute to mean a national standard.
On remand, the Third Circuit again affirmed the district court’s preliminary
injunction. It held “that the following provisions of COPA are not narrowly tailored
to achieve the Government’s compelling interest in protecting minors from harmful
material and therefore fail the strict scrutiny test: (a) the definition of ‘material that
is harmful to minors,’ . . . (b) the definition of ‘commercial purposes,’ . . . and (c) the
‘affirmative defenses’ available to publishers, which require the technological
screening of users for the purpose of age verification.”144
As for the definition of “material that is harmful to minors,” the court found that
the requirement that material be judged “as a whole” in determining whether it was
designed to appeal to the prurient interests of minors and to lack serious value for
minors meant “that each individual communication, picture, image, exhibit, etc. be
deemed ‘a whole’ by itself,” rather than in context.145 Yet “one sexual image, which
COPA may proscribe as harmful material, might not be deemed to appeal to the
prurient interest of minors if it were to be viewed in the context of an entire
collection of Renaissance artwork.”146 The court also found the word “minor” in the
definition of “material that is harmful to minors” to be “not narrowly drawn to
achieve the statute’s purpose,” because it precludes Web publishers from knowing
whether “an infant, a five-year old, or a person just shy of age seventeen . . . should
be considered in determining whether the content of their website has ‘serious . . .
value for [those] minors’” or “will trigger the prurient interest, or be patently
offensive with respect to those minors . . . .”147
As for the definition of “commercial purposes,” the court was “satisfied that
COPA is not narrowly tailored to proscribe commercial pornographers and their ilk,
Id. at 597.
Id. at 600.
Id. at 589.
322 F.3d 240, 251 (3d Cir. 2003) (emphasis in original).
Id. at 252.
Id. at 253.
Id. at 254.
as the Government contends, but instead prohibits a wide range of protected
expression.”148 As for the affirmative defense available to publishers, the court found
that it “will likely deter many adults from accessing restricted content, because many
Web users are simply unwilling to provide identification information in order to gain
access to content . . . .”149
The Third Circuit also found that voluntary “blocking and filtering techniques
. . . may be substantially less restrictive than COPA in achieving COPA’s objective
of preventing a minor’s access to harmful material.”150 Finally, it held “that the
plaintiffs will more probably prove at trial that COPA is substantially overbroad, and
therefore, we will affirm the District Court on this independent ground as well.”151
On June 29, 2004, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, affirmed the preliminary
injunction and remanded the case for trial. The Court found that the district court had
not abused its discretion in granting a preliminary injunction, because the
government had failed to show that proposed alternatives to COPA would not be as
effective in accomplishing its goal. The Court did not address the Third Circuit’s
conclusions that various terms used in COPA rendered it unconstitutional.
The primary alternative to COPA, the Court noted, is blocking and filtering
software. Filters are less restrictive than COPA because “[t]hey impose selective
restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restriction at the source.”
In addition “a filter can prevent minors from seeing all pornography, not just [the
60% of] pornography posted on the Web from America,” and filters “can be applied
to all forms of Internet communication, including e-mail, not just communications
available via the World Wide Web.” Nevertheless, the Court’s “opinion does not
foreclose the District Court from concluding, upon a proper showing by the
Government that meets the Government’s constitutional burden as defined in this
opinion, that COPA is the least restrictive alternative available to accomplish
Justice Breyer, in his dissent, found that COPA’s “burden on protected speech
. . . is no more than modest,” as it would limit “legally obscene material and very
little more.” Further, COPA “does not censor the material it covers,” but merely
“requires providers of the ‘harmful to minors’ material to restrict minors’ access to
it by verifying age.” Justice Breyer then wrote that blocking and filtering software
is not a less restrictive alternative because “it is part of the status quo,” and “[i]t is
always less restrictive to do nothing than to do something.” (The majority opinion
countered that Congress “may act to encourage the use of filters,” and “[t]he need for
parental cooperation does not automatically disqualify a proposed less restrictive
alternative.”) Justice Breyer also noted “four serious inadequacies” of filters, and
found that COPA’s application to “60% percent of the Internet’s commercial
pornography” is not “insignificant.” Justice Breyer’s dissent was joined by two other
Id. at 257.
Id. at 259.
Id. at 265.
Id. at 271.
justices, and Justice Scalia wrote a separate dissent, claiming that “harmful-tominors” material is not protected by the First Amendment.
G. Children’s Internet Protection Act
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), P.L. 106-554 (2000), 114 Stat.
2763A-335, amended three federal statutes to provide that a school or library may not
use funds it receives under these statutes to purchase computers used to access the
Internet, or to pay the direct costs of accessing the Internet, and may not receive
universal service discounts (other than for telecommunications services), unless the
school or library enforces a policy “that includes the operation of a technology
protection measure” that blocks or filters minors’ Internet access to visual depictions
that are obscene, child pornography, or “harmful to minors”; and that blocks or filters
adults’ Internet access to visual depictions that are obscene or child pornography.152
The sections of CIPA (1711 and 1712) that require schools and libraries to block
or filter if they use federal funds for computers or for Internet access, provide that the
blocking or filtering technology may be disabled “to enable access for bona fide
research or other lawful purpose.” The section of CIPA (1721) that requires schools
and libraries to block or filter if they receive universal service discounts, provides
that the blocking or filtering technology may be disabled “during use by an adult, to
enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose.”
Sections 1711, 1712, and 1721 all contain identical definitions of “minor,”
“obscene,” “child pornography,” and “harmful to minors. They define a “minor” as
a person under 17. They define “obscene” to have the meaning given such term in18
U.S.C. § 1460, but that section does not define “obscene.”153 In the absence of a
statutory definition, the courts will no doubt apply the Miller test to define the word.
Sections 1711, 1712, and 1721 all define “child pornography” to have the
meaning given such term in 18 U.S.C. § 2256. That section defines “child
pornography” as any “visual depiction” of “sexually explicit conduct” that is or
appears to be of a minor, and defines “sexually explicit conduct” as various “actual
or simulated” sexual acts or the “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area
of any person.” Child pornography need not be obscene under the Miller test; it is
unprotected by the First Amendment even if it does not appeal to the prurient interest,
Section 1711 amends Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965,
20 U.S.C. §§ 6801 et seq. Section 1712 amends section 224 of the Museum and Library
Services Act, 20 U.S.C. § 9134, which is part of the Library Services and Technology Act
(LSTA), which is Title II of the Museum and Library Services Act. Section 1721 amends
section 254(h) of the Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. § 254(h), which establishes
the “universal service discount,” or “E-rate,” for schools and libraries. Only sections 1712
and 1721 (insofar as it applies to libraries) were at issue in the case before the three-judge
district court and the Supreme Court.
Nor does any other section of the U.S. Code, except 20 U.S.C. § 952(l), which defines
it for purposes of grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, and does so in a manner
that parallels the Miller test, except that it does not apply community standards to the
determination of whether material is patently offensive.
is not patently offensive, and does not lack serious literary, artistic, scientific, or
Sections 1711, 1712, and 1721 define “material that is harmful to minors” as
any communication that —
(i) taken as a whole and with respect to minors, appeals to a prurient interest in
nudity, sex, or excretion;
(ii) depicts, describes, or represents, in a patently offensive way with respect to
what is suitable for minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact,
actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual acts, or a lewd exhibition of the
(iii) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value
as to minors.154
In United States v. American Library Association, a three-judge federal district
unanimously declared CIPA unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement insofar
as it applies to libraries.155 CIPA, like the CDA but unlike COPA, authorizes the
government to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, and the government did so. In
2003, the Supreme Court reversed the district court, finding CIPA constitutional.156
The decision consisted of a four-justice plurality opinion by Chief Justice
Rehnquist, concurring opinions by Justices Kennedy and Breyer, and dissenting
opinions by Justices Stevens and Souter (the latter joined by Justice Ginsburg). The
plurality noted that “Congress may not ‘induce’ the recipient [of federal funds] ‘to
engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional.’”157 The plurality
therefore viewed the question before the Court as “whether [public] libraries would
violate the First Amendment by employing the filtering software that CIPA
requires.”158 Does CIPA, in other words, effectively violate library patrons rights?
The plurality concluded that it does not. In so concluding, the plurality found
that “Internet access in public libraries is neither a ‘traditional’ or a ‘designated’
public forum,”159 and that therefore it would not be appropriate to apply strict
This three-part test is similar to that of the Child Online Protection Act, 47 U.S.C.
§ 231(e), but three differences are that CIPA applies only to visual depictions, whereas
COPA applies also to words; CIPA does not, like COPA, provide that the determinations
of prurience and patent offensiveness (see note 126, supra) be made in accordance with the
views of “the average person applying contemporary community standards”; and CIPA does
not, like COPA, allow a visual depiction of a “post-pubescent female breast” to be found
harmful to minors.
201 F. Supp.2d 401 (E.D. Pa. 2002). The district court struck down § 1712(a)(2), which
concerns LSTA funds, and § 1721(b) which concerns E-rate discounts for libraries. The
provisions affecting schools were not challenged.
539 U.S. 194 (2003).
Id. at 203.
Id. at 205. The district court had found “that when the government provides Internet
scrutiny to determine whether the filtering requirements are constitutional.160 This
means that the government did not have to demonstrate that CIPA serves a
compelling interest (though Justice Kennedy in his concurrence noted that “all
Members of the Court appear to agree” that it does161) or that CIPA does so by the
least restrictive means (the district court had found “that less restrictive alternatives
to filtering software would suffice to meet Congress’ goals”162).
The plurality acknowledged “the tendency of filtering software to ‘overblock’
— that is, to erroneously block access to constitutionally protected speech that falls
outside the categories that software users intend to block.”163 It found, however, that,
“[a]ssuming that such erroneous blocking presents constitutional difficulties, any
such concerns are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering
The plurality also considered whether CIPA imposes an unconstitutional
condition on the receipt of federal assistance — in other words, does it violate public
libraries’ rights by requiring them to limit their freedom of speech if they accept
federal funds? The plurality found that, assuming that government entities have First
Amendment rights (it did not decide the question), CIPA does not infringe them.
This is because CIPA does not deny a benefit to libraries that do not agree to use
filters; rather, the statute “simply insist[s] that public funds be spent for the purposes
for which they were authorized.”165 “CIPA does not ‘penalize’ libraries that choose
not to install such software, or deny them the right to provide their patrons with
access in a public library, it has created a designated public forum,” and that “content-based
restrictions on speech in a designated public forum are most clearly subject to strict scrutiny
when the government opens a forum for virtually unrestricted use by the general public for
speech on a virtually unrestricted range of topics, while selectively excluding particular
speech whose content it disfavors.” 201 F.Supp.2d 401, 457, 460 (E.D. Pa. 2002).
The reason the plurality found that Internet access in public libraries is not a public forum
is that “[a] public library does not acquire Internet terminals in order to create a public
forum for Web publishers to express themselves, any more than it collects books in order
to provide a public forum for authors of books to speak. It provides Internet access, not to
‘encourage a diversity of views from private speakers,’ but for the same reasons it offers
other library resources: to facilitate research, learning, and recreational pursuits by
furnishing materials of requisite and appropriate quality.” Id. at 206.
Id. at 215.
Id. at 207 n.3.
Id. at 208. The three-judge court had found that “At least tens of thousands of pages of
the indexable Web are overblocked by each of the filtering programs evaluated by experts
in this case, even when considered against the filtering companies’ own category definitions.
Many erroneously blocked pages contain content that is completely innocuous for both
adults and minors, and that no rational person could conclude matches the filtering
companies’ category definitions, such as ‘pornography’ or ‘sex.’” 201 F. Supp.2d, at 449.
Id. at 209.
Id. at 211. For additional information on the issue of unconstitutional conditions, see
CRS Report 95-815, Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment.
unfiltered Internet access. Rather, CIPA simply reflects Congress’ decision not to
subsidize their doing so.”166
In effect, then, the plurality seemed to view CIPA as raising no First
Amendment issue other than the possible one of overblocking, which it found the
statute to deal with adequately by its disabling provisions. Justice Kennedy,
concurring, noted that, “[i]f some libraries do not have the capacity to unblock
specific websites or to disable the filter or if it is shown that an adult user’s election
to view constitutionally protected Internet material is burdened in some other
substantial way, that would be the subject for an as-applied challenge, not the facial
challenge made in this case.”167
Justice Breyer would have applied “a form of heightened scrutiny,” greater than
rational basis scrutiny but “more flexible” than strict scrutiny, to assess CIPA’s
constitutionality.168 He would ask “whether the harm to speech-related interests is
disproportionate in light of both the justifications and the potential alternatives.”169
Applying this test, he concurred that CIPA is constitutional.
Justice Stevens found CIPA unconstitutional because of its “vast amount of
‘overblocking,’” which he found not cured by the disabling provisions, because
“[u]ntil a blocked site or group of sites is unblocked, a patron is unlikely to know
what is being hidden and therefore whether there is any point in asking for the filter
to be removed.”170
Justice Souter said that he would not “dissent if I agreed with the majority of my
colleagues . . . that an adult library patron could, consistently with the act, obtain an
unblocked terminal simply for the asking. . . . But the Federal Communications
Commission, in its order implementing the act, pointedly declined to set a federal
policy on when unblocking by local libraries would be appropriate under the
statute. . . . Moreover, the District Court expressly found that ‘unblocking may take
days, and may be unavailable, especially in branch libraries, which are often less well
staffed than main libraries.’”171 Further, “the statute says only that a library ‘may’
unblock, not that it must.”172
Id. at 212.
Id. at 215.
Id. at 216, 218.
Id. at 217.
Id. at 222, 224. Justice Stevens quoted from the district court opinion: “[T]he search
engines that software companies use for harvestings are able to search text only, not images.
This is of critical importance, because CIPA, by its own terms, covers only ‘visual
depictions.’” Id. at 221.
Id. at 232-233.
Id. at 233.
H. Dot Kids Internet Domain
The Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002, P.L. 107-317, 47
U.S.C. § 941, directs the National Telecommunication and Information
Administration (NTIA), which is an agency in the Department of Commerce, to
establish a “new domain” “that provides access only to material that is suitable for
minors and not harmful to minors.” The statute’s definition of “harmful to minors”
is essentially the same as COPA’s.173 Its definition of “suitable for minors” is “not
psychologically or intellectually inappropriate for minors” and “serves (i) the
educational, informational, intellectual, or cognitive needs of minors; or (ii) the
social, emotional, or entertainment needs of minors.” The website for the new
domain is [http://www.kid.us]; that site lists three websites that use the new domain.
I. Misleading Domain Names on the Internet
This provision, 18 U.S.C. § 2252B, which was created by § 521 of the
PROTECT Act, P.L. 108-21 (2003), was placed in the child pornography statute, but
it concerns obscenity and “harmful to minors” material, and not child pornography,
except to the extent that obscenity or “harmful to minors” material may also be child
pornography. It makes it a crime knowingly to use a misleading domain name on the
Internet with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material that is obscene, or
with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material that is “harmful to minors.”
It defines “harmful to minors” to parallel the Miller test for obscenity, as applied to
J. Sexually Oriented Spam
Section 5(d) of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, 15 U.S.C. §§ 7701 et seq., Public
Law 108-187,174 makes it a crime to send to a “protected computer” (which as
defined in section 3 of the statute effectively means any computer) a commercial email “that includes sexually oriented material,” unless (1) “the recipient has given
prior affirmative consent to receipt of the message,” or (2) the e-mail includes in its
subject heading “the marks or notices prescribed by the [Federal Trade]
Commission,” or (3) “the matter in the message that is initially viewable to the
recipient includes only” —
(i) to the extent required or authorized pursuant to paragraph (2), any such
marks or notices;
(ii) the information required to be included in the message pursuant to
subsection (a)(5); and
(iii) instructions on how to access, or a mechanism to access, the sexually
Item (i) apparently should refer to paragraph (3) rather than paragraph (2). If
read to refer to paragraph (3), then it would mean that the FTC-prescribed marks and
See, text accompanying note 126, supra.
“CAN-SPAM” is an acronym for “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography
notices may be in the body of the e-mail instead of in the subject heading. They may
be in the body of the e-mail, however, only if the sender complies with items (ii) and
(iii). Item (ii) refers to subsection (a)(5), which requires all spam to provide:
(i) clear and conspicuous identification that the message is an
advertisement or solicitation;
(ii) clear and conspicuous notice of the opportunity under paragraph (3) to
decline to receive further commercial electronic mail messages from the
(iii) a valid physical postal address of the sender.
Item (iii) apparently means that the body of the e-mail may contain a link to
sexually oriented material, but may not contain sexually oriented material itself.
The Federal Trade Commission issued a final rule, effective May 19, 2004,
requiring that sexually oriented spam “exclude sexually oriented material from the
subject heading . . . and include in the subject heading the phrase ‘SEXUALLYEXPLICIT:’ in capital letters as the first nineteen (19) characters at the beginning of
the subject line.”175 The rule also requires –
that the content of the message that is initially viewable by the recipient
when the message is opened by any recipient and absent any further actions
by the recipient, include only the following information:
(i) the phrase “SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT:” in a clear and
(ii) clear and conspicuous identification that the message is an
advertisement or a solicitation;
(iii) clear and conspicuous notice of the opportunity of a
recipient to decline to receive further commercial electronic mail
messages from the sender;
(iv) a functioning return electronic mail address or other
Internet-based mechanism, clearly and conspicuously displayed,
that . . . a recipient may use to submit . . . a reply . . .
requesting not to receive future commercial electronic mail
messages from the sender . . . .”
The Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), was
amended in 1984 to add the obscenity crimes specified in 18 U.S.C. §§ 1461-1465
to the definition of “racketeering activity” in 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1)(B). RICO makes
it a crime for any person employed by or associated with any “enterprise” engaged
in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce to participate in the affairs of the
enterprise “through a pattern of racketeering activity.” 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c). A
“pattern of racketeering activity” means at least two acts of racketeering activity
69 Fed. Reg. 21024 (2004), 16 C.F.R. Part 316; [http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2004/04/
within ten years (excluding any period of imprisonment). 18 U.S.C. § 1961(5).
Thus, if a person engages in two such activities, including the obscenity offenses
specified, he is subject to prosecution under RICO in addition to, or instead of,
prosecution for the particular activities.
RICO also provides for criminal forfeiture (18 U.S.C. § 1963), and its criminal
forfeiture provision has been used in obscenity prosecutions; see Alexander v. United
States, infra. In Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana, the Supreme Court held that
pretrial seizure, under the Indiana RICO statute, of books or other expressive
materials, was unconstitutional.176 Although probable cause to believe that a person
has committed a crime is sufficient to arrest him, “probable cause to believe that
there are valid grounds for seizure is insufficient to interrupt the sale of
presumptively protected books and films.”177 This presumption of First Amendment
protection “is not rebutted until the claimed justification for seizing books or other
publications is properly established in an adversary proceeding.”178 The Federal
RICO statute, in any event, does not provide for pretrial seizure.179
In Fort Wayne Books, the Court did, however, uphold the constitutionality of
including obscenity violations among the predicate offenses under a RICO statute.
The Court rejected the argument “that the potential punishments available under the
RICO law are so severe that the statute lacks a ‘necessary sensitivity to first
amendment rights.’”180 Further, the Court held that such obscenity violations need
not be “affirmed convictions on successive dates . . . in the same jurisdiction as that
where the RICO charge is brought.”181
The fact that the violations need not be affirmed convictions means that the
obscenity violations may be proved as part of the RICO prosecution; no “warning
shot” in the form of a prior conviction for obscenity is required. “As long as the
standard of proof is the proper one with respect to all the elements of the RICO
allegation — including proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the requisite number of
constitutionally-proscribable predicate acts — all of the relevant constitutional
requirements have been met.”182
The fact that the predicate offenses need not be convictions in the same jurisdiction as that where the RICO charge is brought means that the predicate offenses
can be violations which were based on community standards different from those of
the jurisdiction where the RICO charge is brought.183 “But, as long as, for example,
489 U.S. 46 (1989).
Id. at 66.
Id. at 67.
Id. at 67 n.13.
Id. at 57.
Id. at 61.
This could be the case even in a RICO prosecution based on predicate offenses in a
each previous obscenity conviction was measured by the appropriate community’s
standard, we see no reason why the RICO prosecution — alleging a pattern of such
violations — may take place only in a jurisdiction where two or more such offenses
In Alexander v. United States, the Supreme Court addressed a question it had
left open in Fort Wayne Books: whether there are First Amendment limitations to
RICO forfeitures of assets that consist of expressive materials that are otherwise
protected by the First Amendment.185 The defendant in the case had been found
guilty of selling four magazines and three videotapes that were obscene, and, on that
basis, had been convicted under RICO. He was sentenced to six years in prison,
fined $100,000, and ordered to pay the cost of prosecution, incarceration, and
supervised release. He was also ordered to forfeit all his wholesale and retail
businesses, including more than a dozen stores and theaters dealing in sexually
explicit material, all the assets of these businesses (i.e., expressive materials, whether
or not obscene), and almost $9 million. The government chose to destroy, rather than
sell, the expressive material.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the forfeiture of expressive
materials constitutes prior restraint, as the forfeiture order “does not forbid petitioner
from engaging in any expressive activities in the future, nor does it require him to
obtain prior approval for any expressive activities.”186 Consequently, the Court
analyzed the forfeiture “under normal First Amendment standards,” and could see no
reason why, “if incarceration for six years and a fine of $100,000 are permissible
forms of punishment under the RICO statute, the challenged forfeiture of certain
assets directly related to petitioner’s racketeering activity is not. . . . [T]he First
Amendment does not prohibit either stringent criminal sanctions for obscenity
offenses or forfeiture of expressive materials as punishment for criminal conduct.”187
The Court did, however, remand the case to the court of appeals to decide
whether the forfeiture constituted an “excessive fine” under the Eighth Amendment.
The same day, in another case, the Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause of the
Eighth Amendment applies to forfeitures of property imposed by criminal statutes.188
different part of the same state, as the relevant community may be an area less than the
entire state. See, Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 105 (1974).
489 U.S., at 62. Although the Court uses the word “conviction” in this sentence, there
appears to be no reason why a RICO prosecution could not be based on a violation in
another jurisdiction that had not previously been prosecuted in that jurisdiction. In such a
case, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the laws
(including, in an obscenity case, the community standards) of the state where the predicate
offense occurred had been violated.
509 U.S. 544 (1993).
Id. at 550-551.
Id. at 554-555.
Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993).
18 U.S.C. § 2516(1)(i) authorizes federal judges to approve “the interception of
wire or oral communications” to collect evidence of violations of the federal
obscenity statute (18 U.S.C. §§ 1460-1469). Section 201 of the PROTECT Act, P.L.
108-21 (2003), amended 18 U.S.C. § 2516(1)(c) to provide the same authorization
with respect to child pornography crimes.
M. The Customs Service Provision
This statute, which is codified at 19 U.S.C. § 1305, prohibits importation of,
among other things, obscene material, and provides, upon the appearance of any such
material at a customs office, for its civil forfeiture. P.L. 100-690, § 7522(e),189
amended 19 U.S.C. § 1305 to coordinate seizure by customs officers with criminal
prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 1462. As the message of the President that
accompanied the original proposal that became P.L. 100-690 explained, “While most
obscene material seized by the Customs Service is forfeited under section 1305, some
is of such a nature that it is referred for criminal prosecution as a violation of 18
U.S.C. 1462, importation of obscene material . . . .”190 The amendment to section
[W]henever the Customs Service is of the opinion that criminal prosecution is
appropriate or that further criminal investigation is warranted in connection with
allegedly obscene material seized at the time of entry, the appropriate customs
officer shall immediately transmit information concerning such seizure to the
United States Attorney of the district of the addressee’s residence. . . .
The amendment then sets forth the subsequent procedures to be followed by the
Subsection (e) apparently should have been “(d),” as there is no “(d)” following “(c).”
H.R. Doc. 100-129, supra note 84, at 82.